After months of closures that spelled disaster for some and extreme hardship for many others, retailers both small and large have started reopening across the nation as states lift the stay-at-home mandates that have kept them closed. The results so far, according to multiple sources, are promising.
Headlines this week have concentrated on two of the industry's largest players, REI and Columbia, which reopened stores on a limited basis. REI began offering curbside pickup at more than half of it stores across the country in time for its anniversary sale, May 15-25, and launched zero-contact bike shop services in select locations. It also opened three Montana stores to customers in Bozeman, Kalispell, and Missoula, with more likely to follow if operations in those locations go well.
Bree Warner, store manager at REI Bozeman, told SNEWS on Friday that the store has seen steady traffic since reopening, though it's limiting capacity to 20 customers inside the building at one time.
"The reopening has been very well received by employees and staff," Warner said. "The majority of customers coming in are wearing masks, even though they're not required to, just strongly encouraged. Customers don't seem nervous because we've lagged behind the other retailers in town opening up. A lot of the independent outdoor stores have been open for weeks. Customers are getting used to shopping this way now."
Warner said bikes, footwear, and camping products have been especially popular with customers coming in. Because of the 20-customer limit, the store has occasionally seen lines outside the building, though Warner said they've moved quickly.
"Our customers have generally been patient, understanding, and appreciative. They know that safety is our number-one priority."
Columbia went even further than REI, opening 30 stores in 10 states today, which returned 250 furloughed employees to work. This comes on the heels of a pilot run in Nebraska, where the company reopened a single store last week with positive results. Both companies have implemented stringent new health and safety rules for all open stores, with REI's outlined in a letter from CEO Eric Artz to customers and employees. Some of the measures include "operating on a reduced schedule and limiting the number of people allowed in stores; requiring employees to wear face coverings and asking customers to do the same; socially distanced queuing at store entrances, cash registers, and shop counters; installing plexiglass shields at all registers; and maintaining enhanced cleaning procedures with thorough, frequent cleanings of high-touch surface areas."
Columbia, for its part, will require face coverings for employees, adjust store layouts for social distancing, and wait 24 hours before restocking any clothes brought into fitting rooms. Staff will also routinely clean high-touch areas and cashiers will wear gloves.
Between these bigger announcements, smaller retailers across the country have been resuming operations more quietly, also putting in place new rules for keeping customers and staff safe. According to a SNEWS poll that ran this week, however, those precautionary efforts are much more varied than the safety rules seen at large companies, with little consensus on the best course of action. Out of 296 retailers who responded to the SNEWS poll, only 16 percent said they will limit the number of shoppers inside their stores at one time, while 15 percent will offer curbside pickup, 14 percent will provide hand sanitizing stations, and 12 percent will offer masks or other PPE for customers and employees. A mere 2 percent—six total respondents out of nearly 300—said they will wash all try-on garments. (See the full results of the poll here.)
"Without having a coherent national process about how we deal with this [reopening], everything is different state by state, county by county, town by town," said Rich Hill, president of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance. "The lack of a national policy for how we’re supposed to be doing this is causing real problems. We definitely have retailer members who are dealing with negative reactions from consumers about safety efforts. Some people don't want to wear masks and they're getting into confrontations."
An earlier SNEWS poll, run two weeks ago, asked retailers more simply, "Will you require customers to wear masks when you reopen?" The results: 57 percent voted yes, 27 percent voted no, and 16 percent said they would encourage masks but not require them.
Of course, that doesn't mean that all—or even most—stores are having problems with reopening. Despite some disagreement over safety practices, the comments from store owners and managers have been largely positive.
"Our reopening day was fantastic," said Shelley Dunbar, owner of Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colorado, which resumed in-store operations yesterday. "Sales were robust—better than our average sales for a Thursday. We had a limit of 10 customers in the store at any one time and it was well received."
Dunbar passed along a note from longtime Neptune customer Bob Barron, who came out for reopening day, that read, "To celebrate the [reopening], I went in about 11:30 a.m. and bought a few small things and a gift card to show my support for the store and staff. It was a great experience with all the appropriate safety precautions in place and a very helpful and friendly staff."
Nearby, the reopening of Fjällräven's Boulder location went just as smoothly.
"People were gracious in their movements and remained aware of other guests in the store," said Sarah Tava, director of brand stores for Fjällräven North America. "People provided space, but they didn't shop scared."
Fjällräven's Boulder shop saw about 200 guests come through the door on the first day, entirely without incident, Tava said. This was due partly to the work of the store's new Health and Safety Liaison, who made sure customers followed the company's new rules for shopping responsibly. Fjällräven has installed a similar health officer at each of its brand stores.
"The reopening wasn't a bad start, but we’re still being mindful about store hours," Tava said. "We're providing personal shopping appointments for the people who aren't ready to go fully back. People are still being cautious about what they’re going out into public for."
In the absence of coherent national guidance, Hill said that the most important factor for retailers in the weeks and months to come will be access to reliable information about best practices.
"Grassroots is trying to parse all the information that's coming in, identify what really works for people, and spread that information," he said. "How to sterilize products, how to keep keep your stores clean—there’s plenty of information out there on these topics. As we move forward, we want everyone to be up to speed."
As to whether the reopenings will continue to go well, he added, "We're a resilient group. I'm cautiously optimistic."